Truffle that's as precious as white gold
Costing up to $8,000 a kilo, this white winter truffle is in hot demand on dinner tables here
From a small disposable plastic container, he pulls out a round, yellowish tuber that resembles a potato or a small rock.
"You wanted to see this?" Mr Francesco Marconi, 47, asks this reporter.
It is a white winter truffle from Alba - a town in the Piedmont region in Italy - and also one of the most expensive delicacies in the world.
Says the Italian: "It's $5,000 to $8,000 per kg. This particular one weighs around 130g."
So powerful is this ingredient's allure that even McDonald's has jumped on the bandwagon, launching truffle-flavoured shaker fries late last month.
An order of the fries costs $3.20. That will not pay for even 1g of a white winter truffle, which can cost up to $8 at today's wholesale rates and more than $12 at restaurants.
"Thirty-six hours ago, this truffle was buried underground in Italy. It just arrived here today," says the truffle dealer.
LUXURY TRADE: Mr Francesco Marconi dresses casually in a polo shirt and jeans when making his deliveries. TNP PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Winter truffles must be delivered to the restaurant as quickly as possible because they expire within one to two weeks after they are dug up by truffle-sniffing dogs.
Truffle hunters clean the truffles by hand and pack them in ice before selling them to traders at around $100 to $130 each, depending on their quality.
These traders then export the truffles to international dealers like Mr Marconi at a marked-up price. With a smile, he declines to share the rates that he gets them at - "It is a trade secret."
Chef Denis Lucchi, who heads the kitchen at Buona Terra, sniffs a white winter truffle that he bought for nearly $1,000.
Despite the high prices, demand for truffles has remained high because Singaporeans love to eat, he adds.
The white truffle season starts in October every year, with the number of orders peaking around Christmas.
Chef Denis Lucchi, who heads the kitchen at Buona Terra, says white truffles are well-received at his Scotts Road restaurant.
Says Mr Lucchi: "It has a very complex flavour that complements every dish. Eating it is an occasion and an experience."
The New Paper on Sunday joined Mr Marconi on one of his hectic deliveries last month.
HARD TO KEEP
"As time passes, the truffle shrinks and I will lose money. Singapore weather is really bad for them too, they have to be kept at exactly 1 deg C," he explains.
Any delays in shipping and his truffles cannot be sold as "they will turn stiff and taste like bleach".
Sous chef Gary Wu of Italian restaurant Buona Terra at Scotts Road inspects a white winter truffle.
Casually dressed in a polo shirt and jeans while making deliveries, he doesn't look like someone who deals in one of the most luxurious culinary ingredients in the world.
But it is all part of an act to hide from his rivals, says Mr Marconi, who started truffle distribution company Trifola 7½years ago.
He explains: "There are no company labels on my delivery motorbike because I don't want to be tailed by my competitors.
"If they find out who I deliver to, they can beat me to it the next time the restaurant needs a fresh truffle."
He also faces competition from importers of cheaply farmed black truffles from China as well as "truffle smugglers" - people who bring back suitcases of truffles when they return from Italy.
Says Mr Marconi: "The thing is, they don't pack them well enough. The smell will escape and the whole airport will smell of truffles."
"Not that that's a bad thing," he adds.